Coronavirus puts economic toll on Christians in the Holy Land

BECAUSE of the COVID-19 pandemic confinement measures, pilgrims are staying away from the Holy Land. The streets of Jerusalem will be quite empty at Easter. The cancellation of pilgrimages will have serious repercussions for the religious tourism industry on which many Christian families in Israel and the Palestinian Territories depend.

The coronavirus in the Holy Land has already forced thousands of pilgrims to leave. Clearly, “many Christians will suffer from this, especially in Bethlehem, because they are employed in the tourist sector,” said Friar Ibrahim Faltas, who is in charge, among other things, of relations with the Palestinian Authority and Israel for the Custody of the Holy Land. “Without pilgrims, no one works,” he told Aid to the Church in Need (ACN).

This is the more so since everything is interconnected in the economic ecosystem of Christians of the Holy Land: revenues from tourism fund social and pastoral works carried out by Christian institutions through parishes, shrines, schools, hospices, retirement homes, etc. Many Christians can thus have “a worthy job” to support their families, as Cardinal Leonardo Sandri, prefect of the Congregation for the Eastern Churches, said recently.

Deserted front court of the Holy Sepulcher Church

At present, “with the forced closure of all hotels, bars and restaurants, most of our employees are at home, out of work. The same happened in the past at the time of the intifadas. We do not know how we will be able to pay everyone for a long while,” said Friar Alberto Joan Pari, also of the Custody. He said that all the guest houses run by the Franciscans in the Holy Land are now closed. Souvenir and craft shops, as well as transport companies (taxis, buses, car rentals) are teetering on the edge.

Small family-run businesses are not strong enough to withstand such a shock. In the past, when the Holy Land experienced wartime conditions, some people managed to temporarily find an economic niche outside tourism. However, the pandemic measures have affected all business sectors and everything is closed.

He is conscious that the situation could get worse for local Christians if the “Good Friday collection” is postponed, as he fears. This collection is meant to show the solidarity of Catholic Churches around the world with the Church in the Holy Land. It is also one of the main sources of revenue for the upkeep of the holy places, the welcoming of pilgrims and the support for the local Church in Jerusalem and the Middle East in their efforts to ensure that Christians remain in their countries.

“For the moment, the Good Friday collection has not been cancelled, even though the faithful in Europe and probably in America will not be able to go to their churches to make their donations. There are plans to move the date for the collection the summer, but nothing is certain,” said Brother Alberto. Without a collection, “the loss would represent 80 percent of our income,” warned the Franciscan.

On the Palestinian side, the authorities quarantined the city of Bethlehem in mid-March. Schools and universities (including Christian institutions), mosques and churches are completely closed, including, since March 5, Bethlehem’s Basilica of the Nativity, the birthplace of Jesus. “In the past, it was only closed in the event of war or siege [as in 2002],” said Brother Alberto.

Meanwhile, the atmosphere in the Holy Land is gloomy. On March 12, the Franciscan Pilgrims Office in Jerusalem cancelled until further notice all Masses booked by pilgrimage tour companies at Holy Land shrines. On March 25, Israeli authorities closed the Holy Sepulcher Church. In Jerusalem, the streets are mostly empty “Just to think that only a month ago, pilgrims couldn’t find a place to sleep! It was very crowded. But now no one is left, the last American pilgrims left last week”, said Brother Ibrahim. Everyone hopes to see things get back to normal after the summer for the other pilgrimage high season of the year in September and October. Meanwhile, pilgrimage tours have been cancelled through August.

ACN sponsored 40 projects in the Holy Land in 2018 and 2019 for a total of more than $750,000.

—Christophe Lafontaine